There was a time, not so long ago, when a high percentage of the residential closings that we were doing were short sales. Short sales really ramped up following the bursting of the housing bubble and then peaked during the foreclosure crisis.  We all know how we got there and we remember the no doc, no review teaser loans.  Short sales were a fact of life.  We represented both buyers and sellers in short sales.  In both cases, we were at the mercy of the lenders in addressing the ridiculous number of requirements for approvals and then waiting for months on end for the approvals to come back.

Fortunately, those days are behind us. Short sales are rare, but not completely gone.  So, if you are selling you’re house, how do you know if a short sale is right for you and what will a short sale mean for you?  I haven’t thought much about these questions for a while, but like most of my blog posts, I am inspired to write about this now because recently, a new client inquired about short sales.  The client was transferred from South Florida to Atlanta, leaving behind a house with an outstanding mortgage balance (combined 1st and second) of over $800,000.  The house is not yet listed for sale, though the client has already relocated.  The agent expects that the house will sell for under $700,000.  The client wanted to know what to do and what will happen.  His first question was whether we should apply for short sale approval with the lenders now.

The answer is no. Obviously, if the agent is correct, there will be a short sale.  However, until a contract is signed, there is no approval to obtain from the lenders because we don’t know the amount of the deficiency.  And, because there are 2 lenders, the contract might be enough to satisfy the 1st mortgage leaving the 2nd unpaid.  If the 1st insists upon full payment, the dynamics of the negotiations would change completely.

In addition, in order to approve a short sale, lenders require an appraisal of the property. The appraisal must be by an approved appraiser and can’t be too old.  So, we couldn’t submit an appraisal yet.  The appraisal might be stale by the time a contract is signed.

Another factor is the client’s ability to pay the deficiency. If the client is liquid or has net worth or otherwise has income, lenders are less willing to write off the deficiency.  Where 2 lenders are involved, the client has a bigger hurdle, especially if the 1st mortgagee takes all of the sales proceeds.  Attempting to obtain pre-contract approval would bring attention to these issues far too early in the process.

At this point, I suggested to the client that it would be a bad idea to have any conversation with either lender until there was a contract in place. Once a contract has been signed, it should be submitted to each lender for approval and a case made for the short sale.  Here, the arguments have to be made that the client is unable to pay the deficiency.  I explained that lenders are supposed to make this decision on a primarily objective basis, but we can give subjective reasons for an economic hardship.  But, since we are not in the crisis mode any more, it is now difficult to predict how lenders will lenders will react and that the client needs to be prepared to address the deficiency.

Short sales can’t be counted on as escape routes for home owners or as a simple alternative to the foreclosure process any more. Lenders are less willing to write off deficiencies without a compelling economic hardship.  Because there isn’t a back log of short sales to approve, lenders will carefully review every request for short sale.  If you have other options, you should consider them as well.

I have written previously about title commitments and policies and surveys and the importance of the review process. Perhaps I haven’t discussed the importance of knowing who you are working with and what their abilities are.  Taking that back to the fist step, as the buyer of real estate, how do you assure that you can work with top notch title professionals.  The basic rule is that the person paying for title insurance chooses the agent and underwriter.  Because this is a cost item, and in Florida, a significant one, sometimes buyers and brokers want to negotiate the cost over to the seller.  This is a bad idea as it gives the seller control of the title process.  The seller selects the agent and the underwriter and the buyer is stuck with whatever is presented and is at a disadvantage when it comes to resolving issues.

I can tell countless horror stories about having to work with the other guy’s title company, on large deals and on small deals, going back many years. Needless to say, when my client controls title, the process and result goes much smoother (note, in Florida, attorneys may act as title agent, meaning we issue the policy for the underwriter).  I select the underwriter I feel is appropriate for the deal.  I have long relationships with examiners and underwriters and I know that the commitment I receive will be thorough and if there is a problem, we will jointly work to solve it.  It won’t be thrown back at me without a solution.

More often than not, when the other guy is in control, the opposite occurs. We find problems that the title company missed.  We run down the solutions when the title company should.  We argue with underwriters.  Product and documents are not timely delivered. Because it is not my transaction, I can’t go around the agent even if I have a relationship with the examiner.  Deals stall or even die.

Recently, my buyer client signed a contract prior to contacting where he agreed to pay for title but use the seller’s title company. This was a double no no.  The title commitment appeared clean.  The seller provided an unsigned, unsealed survey dated just 10 months prior.  However, the seller never received the final survey.  Naturally, the title company was unwilling to delete the survey exception based on this survey.  We tried to contact the surveyor to get a signed copy and update the survey, but the surveyor had gone out of business.  We therefore obtained a new survey.  The new survey showed us that there was no access to the property from a public road.  Therefore, the title was not marketable.

Presumably, the title company had based its commitment on seller’s prior policy, issued less than 1 year ago. I asked numerous times for a copy of the prior policy and for an explanation as to what the title company would require in order to insure access.  I got neither.  The agent would not allow me to speak to the underwriter.  After 3 weeks, I was finally able to speak with the underwriter from the prior title company who explained to me that the prior policy had made exception for the access issue specifically.  Therefore, the title company either never received the prior policy or ignored it.  Either way, they kept silent.

We eventually received documentation from the county enabling the title company to insure access and allowing us to close. But, the point is that the other guy’s title company did a horrible job.  It missed the access problem initially, refused to explain the problem until I figured it out from the prior title company and then wouldn’t tell us how to resolve it for another week.  They delayed the closing by a month and a half.  All this happened because I did not have control of title because the contract gave it to the other guy.

In another on-going case, the other guy’s title company has taken over 6 months to issue the final title policy.  After months of pleading and finally, threats, we received the policy.  It was wrong.  It did not even match the marked up commitment issued at closing.  The delay in issuing the final policy has delayed our client in re-financing its property.  Our new title search for the new loan policy has uncovered potential title problems that should have been resolved when we bought the property and were never shown on the title commitment.  But other guy’s title company never raised these potential issues.  If/when we get the final policy, we might have to file a claim if the new underwriter is not satisfied that the potential issues have been resolved.  I really wish the client had not negotiated away the control of the title in this case.

Whenever possible, do not negotiate the right to control title away. The cost of title insurance is a cost well spent to insure that your deal will close the way you want it to close.

This year, hurricanes, with record rain, storm surges and winds, have resulted in severe damage to both commercial and residential buildings, mold contamination, and significant interruption to businesses in the impacted areas. Several Caribbean islands have been wiped away, Key West is unrecognizable, and Houston may have lost more than 150,000 homes. For most of us, luckily, the damage was less severe. My wife and I have leaks in our roof and elsewhere and lost a window (but gained an indoor tree). We lost power for about four and a half days. Friends in South Miami are still without power as of the writing of this post.

The legal implications of the hurricane aftermath extend well beyond mere rebuilding. Mold contamination and water intrusion must be addressed and properly remediated. Design and construction defects may be alleged to have exacerbated the extent of the damage from the hurricane. Employers may face workers’ compensation claims from employees and also may have vacation and lost wages concerns. Insurance coverage may be at issue. Construction costs may have escalated causing losses to builders or developers. Building permits and development approvals may expire due to delays caused by the hurricane. Condominium associations may not have sufficient reserves to act on emergency repairs. Construction licensing regulations may affect the ability to commence repairs and provide penalties for failure to engage properly certified contractors.

So what to do?

  • Make sure you and your family, employees and customers will be safe in your home or building.
    • Are there electrical system damage and risks?
    • Is the water safe to drink?
    • Is there a risk to the structural integrity of improvements?
    • Other Physical Hazards (don’t panic, but snakes and scorpions like piles of debris).
    • Contamination? Such as leaking petroleum tanks, chemical spills and the like.
  • Address potential health risks, whether mold or risky property conditions.
  • Secure your property and protect it from potential or further loss of property value.
  • Deal with Insurance.
  • Deal with Government Agencies such as FEMA
  • Deal with FP&L’s reimbursement programs.
  • Check with your mortgage lender. The lender may have the right to collect insurance proceeds and disburse the funds as repair and rebuilding proceed.
  • Only then commence to restore your property. Use only licensed and insured contractors. Where required by law, obtain all necessary permits and approvals. If you are part of a condominium or property owners’ association, make sure all Board approvals are obtained.
  • Get on with your life

Our lawyers have assisted clients in resolving insurance disputes, negotiating agreements in connection with assessment and remediation services, resolving design and construction defect claims,  implementing programs for addressing employee benefits, preparing hurricane and disaster response plans, and in finding their way through myriad environmental regulations.   In one recent example,  we resolved an insurer’s denial of coverage for water damage based on a theory that the building envelope was defectively designed or constructed and that the damage was not caused by a windstorm (as provided in the policy). By engaging the proper experts, a successful argument was made that the building envelope was properly designed and constructed and that it was indeed the hurricane-force winds that caused the water intrusion.

In another example, we assisted a client in requesting an extension of the expiration date for various development approvals that could not be met due to the direct delays of the hurricane, the difficulty in obtaining materials and the need to redesign to address increases in construction costs.

In addition to helping guide our clients in making proper recovery efforts, we are also focusing our clients’ attention on preventative measures to avoid future repeat damage and liability. We have found that many building and business owners have been hesitant to expend significant sums in prevention, in part to the belief that the recent hurricane landfalls in Florida were merely a fluke.  Whether global warming or a regular climatological cycle, it appears that the Atlantic hurricane season has been on an upswing that may continue for a decade or more. Proper preparation can lessen the business impacts and speed up recovery efforts.

 

In a prior post, I wrote about the need for surveys in real estate transactions (see post HERE). I can’t emphasize this need enough.  I started that post, however, with the premise that clients look for ways to save money, sometimes, and I emphasize sometimes, there is a way to save money on the cost of the survey by updating and recertifying the prior or an existing survey.  To do this, you need to first obtain a prior survey from the seller.  This is not always an easy task.  In residential transactions, for example, sellers aren’t usually very good about keeping their paper work together in one place.  Finding old commercial surveys is easier.

But just because you have a prior survey doesn’t mean you can have it updated or that an update will be cost efficient. If the prior survey is relatively new, the surveyor should be able to go back to the property to confirm the boundaries and that there are no new improvements.  The surveyor will review the new title work and re-certify the survey at a cost which is less than the cost of a new survey.  Keep in mind that this cost may be nominal for residential surveys as residential surveys aren’t terribly expensive.  But on larger, commercial surveys, the cost difference could be significant.

If the survey is several years old of if you know or suspect there have been new improvements to the property since the date of the prior survey, then a new survey will be required. The surveyor will have to do field work to confirm the boundaries and locate the improvements.  If a full ALTA survey is required, monuments and corners must be located and set so it is unlikely that an update will be possible.

Survey updates can also save time. This is important in those instances when you have to close on short notice.  But if a new survey is required, delaying closing to allow time to obtain the survey is the better course.

Survey updates are useful and great tools in the right circumstances. When you can use them, the cost saving is an added benefit.

There are many pre-closing costs incurred in residential real estate closings. These costs are generally fronted by the title company or the buyer’s attorney.  If all goes well and closing occurs, the costs are reimbursed.  However, too often, something goes wrong and the closing doesn’t happen.  We, and I include myself and my firm in this category, closing agents are often stuck with these unreimbursed costs.  Hopefully, our buyer will find another house and we’ll have an opportunity for reimbursement later.  That is not always the case.  Fortunately, many of these pre-closing expenses are small.  One potentially large expense is the estoppel letter from the condominium association or HOA.

Condo and HOA estoppel letters are important parts of residential closings. These tell us whether the seller is current in payment of assessments of if there is a collection action pending that has not yet shown in the title search.  The estoppel confirms the amount of the assessments and how much has been paid to date so that proper pro-rations can be made on the closing statement.  And, hopefully, the estoppel will provide other information, like whether the association has a right of refusal or other approval or purchase rights.

For the work of preparing and providing an estoppel letter, the association or management company usually charges a fee. This fee is unregulated in Florida and we see fees today ranging from as low as $100 to over $450 or even higher if a rush is required.  These fees almost always have to be paid up front.  “Rush” cam mean as much as 2 weeks from the date of request.

HB 483 and its companion in the Senate, SB 398, propose to cap estoppel fees, promulgate a from estoppel which would contain mandatory, standard information and set deadlines for providing completed estoppels to the requestor. In addition, the fees would be payable at closing and out of closing proceeds, relieving the burden from the closing agent.

The “Home Tax Bill” would amend F.S. Sections 718.116, 719.108 and 720.3088, the Condominium, Cooperative and Homeowner Association Acts, respectively. The Act would shorten the time period that Associations have to provide estoppels from 15 days to 10 business days, a minor adjustment.  More importantly, the Act creates a mandatory estoppel form which contains the information an association must provide in its estoppel.  This would include whether there are any existing rules violations pertaining to the unit, the association’s approval requirements for sale or lease of the unit, what utilities are included in the payment of assessments, the parking space and storage unit assigned to the unit, the regular periodic assessment and date paid through and the date the next installment due, if delinquent, the name and contact of the attorney, itemized list of all other assessments and capital contributions due and whether there are any rights of refusals.  The cost of estoppels would be capes at $200 for non-delinquent units, plus $100 for “rush” requests and plus $200 for delinquent units.

Community association groups and attorneys representing community associations oppose the Act arguing that is places too great a burden on associations and that the cost of unpaid estoppels would be passed on to unit owners. These arguments are weak.  For associations which are managed by professional, paid managers or management companies, estoppel information is or should be readily available, regardless of how the manager is staffed.  In fact, most management companies have employees who are dedicated exclusively to providing estoppels.  Further, a large percentage of the information that would be required on the new form is in fact, form language.  The financial information is the same information that is provided today.  There is no real extra burden.  Large property management companies quietly state that estoppel departments are a profit center to their business.  Their associations won’t suffer.  Self-managed associations are generally small and don’t get a large number of requests, certainly, not at one time.  For the few that they do every year, the timing requirements won’t put these associations out any more than they already are.

The risk of unpaid fees is not a real risk either. The Act provides that the owner of the unit is ultimately responsible for the fee.  If it remains unpaid for any reason, the association may collect it as an unpaid assessment.  That means the association may lien and ultimately foreclose the unit if necessary.

The Act brings fairness in a business transaction that was one sided in favor of property managers. Community associations have not really benefitted from estoppel fees and should not oppose the Act.  This is not the first time this legislation has been proposed.  Community associations should join the Florida Association of Realtors in supporting it as unit closings will ultimately go faster and smoother.

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